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Brown seeks to lift state inmate caps

Gov. Jerry Brown says there’s no need to do more to reduce crowding in state prisons, and population caps should be lifted.

In a legal filing late Monday, state lawyers balked at the federal court requirement that California outline plans to further reduce prison crowding. Instead, lawyers insisted that conditions have improved sufficiently, even in prisons with thousands more inmates than they were built to hold.

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“The overcrowding and healthcare conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory,” the filing said.

It is now up to a panel of three federal judges, presiding over class-action lawsuits over inmate medical, dental and mental health care, to decide the next step. Their options include accepting the state’s position, previously rejected, or ordering the state to release prisoners early, a possibility backed in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier online version of this article said that California spends more than $440 million per year to buy space at prisons operated by Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that $318 million will be spent this year on such space. In addition, the article said that Valley State Prison in Chowchilla was at nearly 300% capacity. That figure applies only to the men’s portion of the facility. The women’s quarters are at 15% capacity.


Civil rights advocates who are upset by the state’s refusal to produce a court-ordered reduction called it “business as usual.”

“Insisting that we maintain a horrendously bloated prison population will only ensure that California remain near the bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending on public education,” said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU of Northern California.

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California currently has 133,000 prisoners, nearly 120,000 of them housed in its 33 prisons. That population is far below the 173,000 inmates crowded into the state in 2007, but more than 9,000 above what federal judges say they will allow. The deadline for the reductions is June 30, but the judges have said they will allow California to argue for an extension to December.

State records show that Brown has recently reduced crowding by sending inmates to private prisons out of state. After months of decline, the number of inmates transferred every week began to rise in November. The state is now operating near its contractual maximum, paying more than half a million dollars a day to house prisoners as far away as Mississippi.

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Last year, Brown’s administration vowed to save money by canceling those contracts.

In Monday’s filing, Brown’s lawyers told federal overseers that instead of scheduling early releases or championing new sentencing laws, the governor wants the court to declare that crowding no longer interferes with the delivery of prison healthcare. Among those experts the state cites is Jeffrey Beard, the former Pennsylvania prisons chief who last month took over as Brown’s new corrections secretary.

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Prisoner advocates criticized the governor’s contention.

“This is the latest in a long string of delaying tactics by the state,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, lead attorney for inmates. “The care in California prisons remains unconstitutional and it is unfortunate that the state continues to litigate instead of spending the time and money to fix these life-threatening problems.”

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Brown scheduled dual news conferences in Sacramento and Los Angeles on Tuesday to explain his stance.

Inmate exports were to have been cut in half by December 2013 and stopped by the end of 2015, according to the governor’s May 2012 blueprint, part of a plan that was billed as saving “billions of dollars.”

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“It’s a shuffling of the deck chairs, instead of looking at concrete proposals,” said Emily Harris, director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, an alliance of organizations opposed to increased incarceration. Organizations such as Californians United for a Responsible Budget and the American Civil Liberties Union hoped California’s prison crowding crisis would push the state into early release programs, alternative sentencing and decriminalization of some drugs.

The out-of-state transfers alone are not enough to meet federal orders to reduce California’s prison population to below 137.5% of what its prisons were built to hold. Slapped with findings that inmate care was so poor it amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” California is struggling to show it can improve conditions without resorting to mass releases.

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In 2011, Brown proposed to solve most of those problems by requiring counties to take custody of tens of thousands of nonviolent felons and parole violators who otherwise would be sent to prison. In selling the plan, Brown insisted the state had no choice.

“The force we can’t avoid is the United States Supreme Court,” Brown said in September 2011. “That court said … let out 30,000 prisoners, so that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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His office has acknowledged for a year that the state’s reductions won’t meet the federal target.

Though inmates are no longer triple-bunked in gyms and other open spaces, some facilities remain at 170% of their intended capacity. The Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, in mid-conversion from a women’s prison to a men’s facility, last week was at nearly 300% capacity in the men’s portion of the site.

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California prison officials estimate that $318 million will be spent this year to buy space at prisons operated by Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America. The number of out-of-state inmates has run from a high of 10,000 in 2010 to a low of 8,500 last October as the state rolled out plans to shutter those contracts.

In November, under renewed court demands to meet population caps, California once again began increasing the number of inmates it contracted out. State prison reports show that population returned to nearly 9,000 by the end of December. To go over 9,038 will require modification of California’s contract with Corrections Corp. of America.

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“There’s always an availability of capacity,” said Corrections Corp. of America spokesman Steve Owen.

The transfers have always been opposed by the state prison guards union, which loses jobs, and by inmate advocacy organizations that contend uprooted inmates lose touch with their families and have a harder time of adjusting to post-prison life.

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paige.stjohn@latimes.com


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